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Median Range

A new panhandling restriction has its roots in the now-ended newspaper war.

The most immediate effects of the joint operating agreement between the Denver Post and the Rocky Mountain News -- fewer weekend papers, increased advertising and subscription rates, etc. -- have been well documented. But there's been other fallout as well, and in some unexpected arenas. Consider the following examples, which concern the passage of an ordinance forbidding peddling or panhandling on Denver medians, and a decrease in the amount of newsprint available for recycling.

Takin' it off the streets: Denver's new median measure was inspired by suggestions from policeman Larry Carr, a community resource officer in District 3 who sees the presence on traffic islands of salesmen, political boosters or people looking for spare change as inherently dangerous. A panhandler was hit on a city median on March 17, he told the press in late April, around the time that the proposed bill was approved by Denver's safety and personnel committee.

Carr's way of thinking struck a chord with city councilwoman Elbra Wedgeworth, who authored the final plan, and several of her colleagues, including Polly Flobeck, who represents District 5 on the council. "To me, it's all about safety," Flobeck says. "When people are on the medians, it can either distress drivers or make them mad, so that they lose concentration. That can jumble traffic and cause accidents."

This logic was persuasive. Despite opposition from the likes of John Parvensky, president of the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless, the full council unanimously approved the median ordinance on May 14, after which Mayor Wellington Webb signed it into law with little fanfare and even less spillage of ink at the city's papers. Both Denver dailies offered up modest articles about the suggested ban after the safety and personnel committee's okay in April, but the News didn't bother to report its passage just over two weeks later, and the Post tacked two lines about it to the very bottom of an Arthur Kane article that otherwise reported a delay in a vote to license valet-parking outfits.

What's any of this got to do with the JOA? In November 1999, District 10 councilman Ed Thomas introduced virtually the same median bill as the one that skated through in May, and he advertised it using the same safety claims voiced by Flobeck. Likewise, the proposition was criticized by Parvensky and other advocates for the homeless, who saw it as an unnecessary regulation that would strip many poor people of their meager livelihood -- the same argument the council dismissed last month. But instead of being embraced, the 1999 proposal never got out of committee. Thomas has a pretty good idea why. "The newspapers came out against mine," he says.

They had a good reason: Among other things, the bill would have largely snuffed out the street-hawker programs then being operated by the News and the Post as part of their duel-to-the-death circulation battle. The dailies provided newspapers free of charge to anyone willing to sell them at intersections and medians -- not surprisingly, most participants were homeless -- and allowed these people to keep whatever money they collected. In exchange, the dailies were able to add the papers to their circulation figures. To Dianna Kunz, president of Colorado's Volunteers of America branch, the arrangement benefited everyone. "The newspapers won because they were providing people with a convenient way to get their paper, and the homeless won because they were afforded the opportunity to make some money and help themselves."

Predictably, the dailies' articles about the Thomas bill contained comments from newspaper officials, who made their feelings abundantly clear. In the News's piece, published November 10, 1999, Linda Sease, the paper's vice president of marketing, said, "I don't think we should limit people's ability to improve their life just because it makes us uncomfortable...Are we going to ban selling newspapers at grocery stores because it clogs up the entrances? Are we going to not allow trucks to stop at boxes because they might pose a traffic problem? You can't restrict every risk in life."

The Post's take on the topic, published the previous day, listed several more pragmatic reasons why the newspapers didn't like Thomas's suggestion. Staff writer Susan Greene wrote, "The Denver Post and the Denver Rocky Mountain News employ hundreds of street hawkers, many of whom are transients, as foot soldiers in the city's fierce newspaper war. Although hawker sales aren't the mainstay of either papers' circulation, they're key in marketing strategies -- teasing motorists with headlines and luring nonsubscribers to easily pick up editions while idling at red lights." Greene quoted Post vice president of circulation Judd Alvord, who said a hawking ban "would hurt both papers' circulation efforts and numbers" and added that the Post would consider fighting the ordinance on behalf of free-speech principles. "There are protections afforded to newspapers under the First Amendment," he said.

Given such a blatant challenge from a well-heeled adversary, it's hardly surprising that the council committee displayed zero enthusiasm for the Thomas scheme. A byline-free postmortem offered by the News on November 11 stated that "other council members said they hesitated to infringe on homeless people's rights to earn a living" -- a fear that apparently troubles them no longer.

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